Archive for May, 2018

Thanks to the excellent Boing Boing for highlighting Jonathan McIntosh’s marvellous video essay on films that helped formulate his compassion as a child. For Drozbot, it’s interesting to note that he quotes the film critic Robert Ebert talking about movies being devices for generating empathy – which in turn resonates with the P.K. Dickian concept of the Voight-Kampff machine and empathy boxes of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

That aside, the notion of whether there are enough empathetic Sci-Fi movies was an interesting challenge to address. Unlike McIntosh, we cannot keep the focus tightly on the 1980s, but there are more than enough films out there to replicate the sentiment – thanks partially to his already covering E.T. (1982), Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Batteries Not Included (1987). One notable absence from the decade, however, is Enemy Mine (1985). Based upon Barry Longyear’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, the story definitely ticks the ‘empathy for the other’ that McIntosh references, while also promoting black and white lead characters – albeit with Louis Gossett Junior sweltering under layers of prosthetics.

While the Sci-Fi films of the 1950s focused on B-Movie sensationalism, there was one truly empathetic, stand-out movie in their ranks. We’ve mentioned time and time again here on Drozbot, but Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remains a heart-wrenching exploration of tragic loss and fateful acceptance, while also breaking swathes of fresh ground in special effects.

The mind-warping concepts, cautionary tales and downbeat endings of the genre throughout the 1970s make empathetic high water marks hard to find. Meanwhile, the cold war paranoia and all-out action of the 1980s leaves the empathy rich Blade Runner (1982) out on a limb. By the end of the Century it’s an odd piece of retro animation that finds a way into our hearts. Reflecting back on the monster movies of the 1950s, while never losing sight of the destructiveness of mankind, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) once again focuses on the marginalised, the dis-empowered and the ‘other’ rather than typical, heroic tropes of the era.

Admittedly, there isn’t a plethora of these kinds of films within the genre, but there is a marked increase in their frequency as the 2000s get into their stride. Both Takahito Akiyama’s Honioko (2005) and Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) use the tried-and-tested model of robots as the child-like observers and mimics of the best of human nature while they struggle against depictions of us at our very worst. After these, the flood gates of our emotional relationship with science fiction and technology open up with Brit Marling, Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman all manning the sluice gates. Seems that, despite all the doom, gloom and misgivings, our empathy generating devices are working overtime to pave the way to a much more sensitive and caring future.

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John Hawthorn got in touch with us about his recent article on advances in cybernetics. It’s a great overview covering a broad range of what’s going on with both the hardware and software that’s allowing us to augment our lives in hitherto unimaginable ways.

Living cyborg Neil Harbisson, who has monochromatic vision and a cranial implant that allows him to experience colour via electrical impulses, gets a mention. As does Neurobridge who, in a similar vein to Elon Musk’s Nuralink, are researching mechanical interfaces with the human mind. But it’s Hawthorn’s reference to the growing number of people that have sub-dermal implants that is of most interest to our site.

Mark O’Connell’s book To Be a Machine is just one investigation into the growing sub-culture of Transhumanism. Within it he considers everything from wearable technology, through the use of chip implants to the ethical minefield of removing healthy limbs in favour of more powerful, versatile and longer-lasting prosthetics. In fact, when considering artificial limbs, the divide between fact and fiction has become wafer thin. Just consider these videos from Sarif Industries and Hero Arm and tell us which infomercial is a videogame promotion and which is a real company.

Exoskeletons are a near perfect vehicle for the contradictory elements within cybernetics, especially when you consider both the medical and military applications. Creating body armour that makes a single solider on the battlefield stronger, faster and more durable – as in Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow – raises issues of a combatative technocracy. Whereas the same technology applied to a bed-bound quadriplegic sudden becomes transformative.

No more so are the ethical boundaries contested than in the artificial enhancement of our own cognitive abilities. Scientists may still be deliberating whether sentient artificial intelligence is achievable, but that doesn’t stop theorists thrashing out the implications of encoding and uploading our consciousness into machines. Again, referring back to the idea of a technocracy, would such digitised immortality be the preserve of just the wealthy or tech savvy? Looking back at the principles of Eugenics in the late 19th Century, and it’s mutation into ethnic cleansing, it’s easy to map out totalitarian outcomes of these advancements – especially when you effectively remove the mortality of any given despot.

As ever, we’re on the cusp of these marginal technologies nudging their way towards the mainstream. But for every homemade, 3D printed hand, there’s a GoogleGlass languishing in the vault of failed experiments. It’s good that all these complexities are being worked through now, as heading back over the boundary between human and machine, once that threshold has been properly crossed, will be impossible.

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